Monday, March 10, is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. To mark the occasion, free HIV testing will be offered at several locations in Tucson (Theresa Lee Clinic, 332 S. Freeway Road; the Tucson Indian Center, 97 E. Congress St.; Native Images, 2016 E. Broadway Blvd.; and the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, 375 S. Euclid Ave.).
Organizers will hold an event at 4:30 p.m. at the downtown library (101 N. Stone Ave.), to raise awareness of the disease; that will be followed by a candlelight walk downtown.
When Seh (pronounced Shay) Welch learned that women and girls are the fastest-growing population in terms of HIV/AIDS diagnoses in the United States and Pima County, it seemed like a good idea to call attention to the problem in hopes that more women would get tested. Welch, director of HIV services at Native Images, is used to organizing awareness and education programs for American Indian women, but for National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, on March 10, she wanted to bring together numerous organizations that serve women. Welch says she learned that organizations need to cooperate more—but the silence from elected officials who are women provided her with her greatest lesson. For information on Native Images call 882-6120.
What is the point of a National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day?
We decided to (mark) this in Tucson, because we realized nobody has particularly focused on women and girls as a community event. Then I was looking at statistics and saw that Pima County has the highest prevalence of HIV disease in all of Arizona. Then I started calling other folks who provide services to women, and to my surprise, no one was organizing anything regarding women and girls. The number of women diagnosed with HIV in Pima County has increased 23 percent. That’s enough of a reason for us to get everyone together.
What is surprising about these women who are newly diagnosed?
So many women are infected through heterosexual contact, and they believe they are in a monogamous relationship. They very well may be, or they may not be. We’re trying to reduce any kind of barriers and also bring awareness to the fact that if you are an injection drug user, that is a co-factor, and if you are having sex with a man who has sex with men, then you have a higher risk factor, and if you are a sex worker, you have a risk factor. But 88 percent of women who are newly infected are infected through heterosexual contact—no other risk factor. They may not know their partner is having sex with men; they might not know their partner is an IV drug user; or they might not know what their partner’s history is.
Part of your work is to normalize testing. What do you mean?
Make HIV testing part of mammography and Pap smears. On March 10, we wanted to bring awareness and try to normalize it, because, look, we don’t know what our partners are doing; we don’t know what our partners have done, or what we have done to put ourselves at risk. But what we do know is if we get tested, we can prolong our lives.
What surprised you most as you began to organize the event?
Politics. We have 14 organizations that have never come together before around a women’s day. Pima County and Tucson have never had a day of awareness for women and girls. To have elected women officials confirm and then decide they have something else to do—it’s disappointing. Quite frankly, it hits the heart when so many women have worked so hard to get women elected, and you look and say, “Well, what women’s issues have they been addressing as our elected officials for x number of years?” … You can’t even send a statement? Representatives from the Pima County/Tucson Women’s Commission are coming and talking. Tucson City Councilmember Karin Uhlich is coming to speak. But it’s very interesting that (County Supervisor) Sharon Bronson, who had confirmed, has decided that something more important has come up. (Supervisor) Ann Day hasn’t responded. (City Councilmember) Nina Trasoff is not coming. Look, I’m not going to negotiate with these politicians to get them to come, because women and girls’ lives don’t get to be negotiated. This isn’t a political platform. This is about leadership and showing leadership, and maybe at events like these, women who are in the public eye inspire women to get tested.
Beyond local, you got a national company to donate free HIV tests.
Yes, OraSure just received FDA approval for this new test that is a mouth swab. We asked if they could provide tests, and they said, “Absolutely, we’ll help you in any way we can.” They provided us with 200 test kits. There is no blood involved, and you know right away, and we provided the test for free.
The event is ending with a candlelight walk. Why is that important?
When we began planning, we thought of calling it a candlelight march, but then the implication is we are protesting something. … We are bringing light to this issue and light to downtown Tucson, the city and county government. Maybe most elected officials didn’t come because they thought we’d ask for money, and it would become a budget issue. We’re not asking for money. We’re not asking for an increase in services, dollars or anything. We’re just asking them to think about women and girls’ health and say something to show us they care to be part of the solution to bring attention to this crisis.